China think-tanks rising in numbers

MR LI Fan was initially worried that a two-day seminar on democracy he was organising in Beijing last December might run into trouble with the authorities due to its sensitive topic. To his surprise, the event ran smoothly.

"In fact, some government officials even attended the seminar," Mr Li, who heads the World and China Institute, a private think- tank, told The Straits Times.

He believes the greater interest and tolerance stem from President Xi Jinping's keenness in building "new think-tanks with Chinese characteristics" - a call made in April last year and again during a key policy summit by the Communist Party in November.

Since then, new think-tanks have emerged with former politicians or military chiefs at their helm while existing ones are teaming up with overseas universities.

For instance, the Nanfang Media Group in December launched the Southern Defence Think Tank in Guangzhou to build China's version of the Rand Corp, a non-profit policy think-tank in the United States. The same month, the elite Fudan University set up the Centre for China Development Model Research.

China now has 426 think- tanks, ranking it second in the world after the United States with 1,828, according to a recent worldwide study of think-tanks.

In terms of quality, however, China trails far behind the US and other Western countries, with only six of its think-tanks in the world's top 100, according to the 2013 Global Go To Think Tanks Index released by the University of Pennsylvania last month.

Topping the list was the Washington-based Brookings Institution. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country's premier think-tank, was 20th. Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies was 78th.

Experts attribute China's poor performance partly to the fact that many Chinese think-tanks have strong government support, which hurts their independence and representation of public interests. The few that are private face problems in areas such as fund- raising, information-sharing and attracting talent, they add.

"Among the most used factors for assessing any think-tank's quality are its independence and capacity to think out of the box," said Dr Thierry Kellner, a political science lecturer at Belgium's Universite Libre de Bruxelles.

"To be productive, any debate must confront perspectives and allow for critical visions - conditions that are hard to gather in China when sensitive topics are on the table."

But some think that close links with the government have an upside too and that the global rankings belie the influence Chinese think-tanks have in shaping government policies and public sentiments.

Mr Pascal Abb, a research fellow at the Hamburg-based GIGA Institute of Asian Studies, said this "overwhelming financial dependence on the state" means that they are closer to the centre of power when influencing policy.

"Their expertise is definitely being put to use," he said. "Most Chinese think-tanks have regular communication channels due to their direct link to the government, through which they submit current events analyses and policy suggestions."

This is a connection that Western institutes lack, added Mr Abb, who has written a paper on the changing roles of China's foreign policy think-tanks.

Already, these institutes are playing a role in Chinese policymaking. Among the more influential reports in recent years was one by the World Bank and China's government-linked Development Research Centre in 2012 that called for an overhaul of how state enterprises were run.

And their global impact is likely to rise as China's US$9 trillion (S$11.4 trillion) economy makes it an indispensable international player and as China's leadership pours more resources into developing better think-tanks.

Tsinghua University analyst Zhu Xufeng thinks the high hopes Mr Xi has for Chinese think- tanks signal an awareness that stronger critical thinking is needed to support the leadership amid complex social, economic and environmental challenges.

"The support Beijing needs from think-tanks will increase and with more officials open to taking policy advice from them, this has led to a new phase of growth for think-tanks in China," said Professor Zhu, who has written three books on think-tanks.

Analysts say influential think- tanks can increase China's soft power by shaping global public opinion and promoting Chinese views. Their interaction with foreign institutes can also bolster unofficial communication channels and avoid misunderstandings.

But the freedom that foreign policy think-tanks enjoy will continue to be controlled and their participation in foreign policymaking monitored as Beijing is "very careful in protecting its hold on power", said Dr Kellner, who has studied the think-tanks.

The phrase "think-tanks with Chinese characteristics", he said, "can be understood as an often used strategy to legitimise their opaque functioning, the nebulous link they have with the regime, and the constraints they have to face in the public space".

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